For nearly a decade, Josep De Alcaraz-Fossoul, Ph.D., has been exploring cutting-edge methods to estimate the age of fingerprints at crime scenes, and he has published his work in myriad peer-reviewed articles and, recently, a book that is the first of its kind. He is helping his students conduct and publish their own impactful research in the field.
December 14, 2021
When Summer Li ’20, ’22 M.S. was in her senior year as a forensic science major at the University, she began working on a research project with Josep De Alcaraz-Fossoul, Ph.D., her capstone project adviser. He served as a mentor and guide as she began her first research experience, learning all aspects of the process, from laboratory setup to writing a research paper.
Now a candidate in the University’s graduate program in forensic technology, Li is continuing her work with Dr. Fossoul. Their research explored an inkless method using commercial thermal paper and alcohol-based hand sanitizer to collect reference fingerprints. They compared the quality and clarity of fresh fingerprints from their approach with the conventional black ink method, discovering that the proposed method could be used as a low-cost and more hygienic alternative to the conventional ink method.
Li wrote her research paper with Dr. Fossoul’s guidance, and it was published in the Forensic Science International, a peer-reviewed academic journal, earlier this year.
“As a first-time student researcher, I was glad to have Dr. Fossoul as my adviser,” she said. “He has guided me every step of the way, providing tremendous guidance and support. He has done an immense amount of work to refine this project, from teaching me new information to instructing me how to analyze and interpret the data. I could not imagine doing this without such an amazing adviser as Dr. Fossoul.”
‘Students are doing amazing and very competitive work’
Dr. Fossoul’s own research has explored cutting-edge methods to estimate the age of latent fingerprints at crime scenes. His work includes three key elements: the analysis of aging processes, identification potential, and statistics. He has already identified several parameters that could be used to indicate the age of fingerprints in practical settings. He says the focus of his work came about “by chance,” and that it inspired his research over the next decade.
“The concept emerged from a crime scene in 2011 where I located a fingerprint that looked ‘fresh,’ thus, potentially related to the crime,” said Dr. Fossoul, who has served as a crime scene investigator and criminalist. “But I had no means to scientifically prove that fact because there was not sufficient research on the topic. After a discussion with my corporal and sergeant, we decided to start working on a research project to investigate the aging patterns of fingerprints and, thus, determine the time of deposition.”
Dr. Fossoul says he always had the desire to “contribute to and help our society in a meaningful and tangible way.” Although he initially focused on infectious disease and cancer research, he later shifted to helping those who experience suffering at the hands of others – such as those who have lost loved ones to violent crime. After completing his postdoc in cancer research and speaking with a friend who was a police officer, he decided his calling would be helping to solve crimes.
Dr. Fossoul has already made a remarkable contribution to forensic science research. This year alone, he has published seven peer-reviewed articles, generating more than 200 scientific citations. He has also recently published a first-of-its-kind book on fingerprint-aging approaches, collaborating with leading forensic scientists from around the world. The book, which includes three chapters featuring work by his students, explores technical approaches to fingerprint-aging research. He hopes it will become a reference book for future research.
Dedicated to creating meaningful research opportunities for his students, Dr. Fossoul is now working with half a dozen of them on studies using 2D and 3D imaging technologies, as well as exploring the involvement of skin microbes in fingerprint degradation. Eight of his students have, so far, published or will soon publish their work in prestigious academic journals such as the Journal of Forensic Sciences and Forensic Science International.
“Learning by doing and innovating is an important component of education, and research is an example of it,” he said. “The students are giving their best and doing amazing and very competitive work, which is later being recognized internationally. For their future careers, they will find that publications are something they can later use to leverage highly competing job offers in their favor.”
‘He has made an incredible impact on my time at the University’
Adam Eschbacher ’22 M.S., a candidate in the University’s graduate program in forensic science, is also conducting research under the mentorship of Dr. Fossoul. He has focused on how fingerprints age on a variety of surfaces, such as glass, metal, and plastic. Eschbacher has been particularly fascinated by the myriad factors that can affect how a fingerprint ages, such as the environment or the diet of the individual who deposited the print.
“Working with Dr. Fossoul has greatly expanded my means of addressing issues that may arise in not only scientific research but in a future career setting,” he said. “It is very rare that everything goes as planned when conducting research or working in a specific field. Whenever a problem occurred, Dr. Fossoul was quick to provide suggestions as to how to move forward. As I’ve spent more time working with him, I’ve been able to develop a greater understanding of problem solving due to his guidance.”
Li, the forensic technology graduate candidate who has worked with Dr. Fossoul as an undergraduate, is now continuing the second part of her project under his mentorship. They are exploring on the stability and durability of the proposed inkless method, focusing on time, temperature and relative humidity, and biological sex effects. Now working on her second paper, she says the research process has been both challenging and rewarding.
“Throughout these two years working with Dr. Fossoul, he has always encouraged me to challenge myself to improve and to learn more,” she said. “I have learned a lot from him, and he has given me invaluable advice – not only in my academic life but also for my future career. He has made an incredible impact on my time at the University. I would not be who I am today without his support and encouragement, and I am so thankful to him for seeing the potential in me and for believing in me.”